Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 9


"Can I teach thee, my beloved? can I teach thee?"

Agatha came home in due time, and Magdalen sent her sister to meet her at the station, where they found a merry Clipstone party in the waggonette waiting for Gillian, who was to come home at the same time. There was so much discussion of the new golf ground, that Vera had hardly a hand or a glance to bestow on Mr. Delrio, who jumped out of the same train, shook hands with Agatha, and bestirred himself in finding her luggage and calling a cab.

"How he is improved! What a pleasing, gentlemanly fellow he looks!" she exclaimed, as she waved her thanks, while driving off in the cab.

"Is he not?" said Paula, while Vera bridled and blushed. "You will be delighted with his work. I never saw anything more lovely than little St. Cyriac the martyr."

"He is taken from Mrs. Henderson's little boy," added Vera; "such a dear little darling."

"And his mother is to be done; indeed, he has sketched her for St. Juliet."

"Flapsy! St. Romeo, too, I suppose?"

"Nonsense, Nag! There really was a St. Juliet or Julitta, and she was his mother, and they both were martyrs. I will tell you all the history," began Paula; but Agatha interposed.

"You must like having him down here. Sister must be much pleased with him. She used to like old Mr. Delrio."

"Well, we have not said much about him," owned Paula. "He does not seem to wish it, or expect to be in with swells."

"We could not stand his being treated like a common house-painter and upholsterer," added Vera.

"Surely no one does so," said Agatha.

"Not exactly," said Paula; "at least, he has had supper at St. Kenelm's Vicarage with Lady Flight, and luncheon at Carrara with Captain and Mrs. Henderson."

"Because he was DOING the child," interposed Vera; "and Thekla says that Primrose Merrifield says that her Aunt Jane--that is, old Miss Mohun--says that Lady Flight is not a gentlewoman."

"What has that to do with Magdalen?"

"Why, she is so taken up with those swells of hers, especially now that there is a talk of Lord Somebody's yacht coming in, that she would never treat him as on equal terms, but just keep him at a distance, like a mere decorator."

"That seemed to me just what you were doing," said Agatha, "when he was so kind and helpful about my box."

"Oh, THEY were all there, and we did not want to be talked of," said Vera, blushing. "He understands."

"He understands," repeated Paula. "We do see him at the church and at the Sisters'. Those dear Sisters! There is no nonsense about them. You will love them, Nag."

"Well, it does not seem to me to be treating our own sister Magdalen fairly."

"The M.A.!" said Vera, in a tone of wonder.

"No; not to be intimate with a person you do not introduce to her, because you do not think she would consider him as on equal terms."

"Sister Beata quite approves," added Paula, sincerely, not guessing how little Sister Beata knew of the situation, of which she only heard through the medium of her own representations to Sister Mena.

The two girls rushed into the charms of these two Sisters, and the plan for an entertainment for the maidens of the Guild of St. Milburgha, at which they were to assist. It lasted up to the gate of the Goyle, where Magdalen and Thekla were ready to meet them; and they trooped merrily up the hill, Agatha keeping to Magdalen's side in a way that struck her as friendly and affectionate. It seemed to be more truly coming HOME than the elder sister had dared to anticipate; nor, indeed, did she feel the veiled antagonism to herself that had previously disappointed her.

The talk was about St. Robert's, about Oxford in general, the new friends, the principal, the games, the debates, the lectures, the sermons, the celebrities, the undergraduates, the concerts, the chapels, the boats, the architecture; all were touched on for further discussion by and by as they sat at the evening meal, and then on the chairs and cushions in the verandah; and through all there was no exclusion of the elder sister, but rather she was the one who could appreciate the interest of what Agatha had seen and heard; and even she was allowed to enter into the amusement of an Oxford bon mot, sometimes, indeed, when it was far beyond Paula and Vera.

There was no doubt that the term had much improved Agatha even in appearance and manner. She held herself better, pronounced better, uttered no slangish expressions, and twice she repressed little discourtesies on the part of her sisters, and neglects such as were not the offspring of tender familiarity, but of an indifference akin to rudeness. Magdalen had endured, knowing how bad it was for their manners, but unwilling to become more of an annoyance than could be helped. The indescribable difference in Agatha's whole manner sent Magdalen to bed happier than she had been since the arrival of her sisters, and feeling as if Agatha had come to her own side of a barrier.

Perhaps it was quite true; for the last two months had been a time of growth with the maiden, changing her from a schoolgirl to a student, from the "brook to the river." She had, indeed, studied hard, but that she had always done, as being clever, intellectual and ambitious. The difference had been from her intercourse with persons slightly her elders, but who did not look on authorities as natural enemies, to be tolerated for one's own good. There had been a development of the conscience and soul even in this first term that made her regard her elder sister not merely with a sense of compulsory gratitude and duty, but with sympathy and fellow feeling, which were the more excited when she saw her own chilliness of last spring carried further by the two young girls.

So breakfast went off merrily; and after the round of the garden and the pets, Agatha promised to come, when summoned, to hear how well Thekla could read French. In the meantime she waited in the morning- room, looking at her sisters' books; Vera pushed aside the Venetian blind.

"Don't come in that way, Flapsy!" called Paula. "You'll be heard in the dining-room, and the M.A. will tremble at your dusty feet."

"They aren't dusty," said Vera, pulling up the blind with a clatter.

"Aren't they?" laughed Paula, pointing.

"You had better go and wipe them," said Agatha.

"I don't believe in M.A.'s fidgets," returned Vera.

"But I do, in proper deference to the head of the house," said Agatha, gravely.

"Murder in Irish!" cried Vera, bouncing away, while Paula argued, "Really, Nag, life is not long enough to attend to all the M.A.'s little worries."

"Polly, dear, I am afraid we have been on a wrong tack with our sister. I don't like calling her by that name."

"You began it!" exclaimed Vera, dashing in by the door as she spoke.

"I could not have meant it as a nickname to be always in use."

"Oh yes, you did, I remember"--and an argument was beginning, which Agatha cut short by saying, "Any way, it is bad taste."

"Nag has been so much among the real M.A. that she is tender about their title."

"She wants to be one herself," said Vera; "and so she will if she goes on getting learned and faddy."

"In both senses?" said Paula.

Agatha laughed a little, but added, "No, Polly, the thing is that it is hardly kind or right to put that sort of label upon a person like Magdalen--who has done so much for us--and--"

The perverse young hearts could not bear a touch on the chord of gratitude; and Paula burst in, "Label or libel, do you mean?"

"It becomes a libel as you use it."

"Do you want us to call her sister or Magdalen, the whole scriptural mouthful at once?"

"I believe that to call her Magdalen or Maidie, as my father did, would make her feel nearer to us than the formal way of saying 'Sister.'"

"I don't mind about changing," said Paula. "She can never be the same to us as dear Sister Mena."

"She is so tiresome," added Vera. "She bothers so over my music; calling out if I make ever so small a slip, and making me go over all again."

"Well she may," said Paula. "She is making little Tick play so nicely. Just listen! But I can't bear her dragging us off to that horrid old Arnscombe Church and the nasty stuffy Sunday school."

"That reminds me," said Agatha; "Gillian Merrifield met a relation of Mr. Earl's, who said that Miss Prescott had brought quite new life and spirit to the poor old man, who had been getting quite out of heart for want of any one to help and sympathise with him."

"Then he ought to make his services more Catholic," said Paula. "But nothing will wean her from the old parochial idea. Why, she would not let me give my winter stockings to Sister Beata's poor girls, but made me darn them and put them by."

"Yes, and mine, which were bad enough to give away, she made me darn first," cried Vera. "She is ever so much worse than the superlative about mending one's clothes."

"There ought to be another degree of comparison," said Paula,-- "Botheratissima!"

"For, only think!" said Vera. "She won't let us have new hats, but only did up the old ones, and not with feathers, though there is such a love at Tebbitts's at Rockstone."

"She says it is cruel," said Paula.

"Cruel to me, I am sure; and what difference does it make when the birds are once killed?"

"Well, she did give us those lovely wreaths of lilies," said Paula.

"Of course, but nothing to make them stylish! What's the good of being out if one is to have nothing chic? And she won't let me have a hockey outfit. She says she must see more of it to be able to judge whether to let us play!"

"That just means seeing whether her dear Merrifields do," said Paula.

"Gillian did at St. Catherine's. But you will know soon. Did I not hear something about a garden party?"

"Oh, yes; she is talking of one, but it will be all swells and croquet, and deadly dull."

"I thought you seemed to be getting on well with the swells, if you mean the Merrifields, especially Wilfred, if that is his name."

"Bil--Bil! Oh, he is all very well," said Vera, "if he would not be always so silly and come after me! As if I cared!"

"And only think," said Paula, "that she was going to have it on the very day that St. Milburga's Guild has their festival! Just as if it was on purpose!"

"Did you ask her to keep clear of your engagements?"

"I told her, but I don't think she listened." And as another grievance suggested itself to Vera, she declared, "And she won't let us join the Girls' Magazine Club, because she saw one she didn't like on somebody's table. As if we were little babies!"

"She won't let us order books at the library, but gets such awfully slow ones," chimed in Paula, "or only baby stories fit for Thekla. She made me return that book dear Sister Mena lent me, because she said it was Roman Catholic."

"And hasn't she got Thomas a Kempis on her table? and I'm sure he was Roman Catholic. There's consistency!"

"You don't understand," began Agatha. "He was a great Saint before the Catholics became so Roman."

"Oh, never mind! It is anything to thwart us," cried Vera. "It is ever so much worse than school."

"But," began Agatha, and the tone of consideration to that one conjunction caused an outburst. "Oh, Nag, Nag, if you are gone over to the enemy, what will life be worth?"

As that terrible question was propounded, in burst Thekla with, "Oh, Nag, Nag, they are cutting the hay in the high torr field, and sister says we may go and see them before I read my French."

"Oh!" cried Vera, with a prolongation into a groan, "is she going to be tiresome?"

"She has come to be quite a don," said Paula; "but never mind, we will soon make her all right again."

The two sisters had to go to their different classes in the afternoon, and wanted Agatha to go with them; but it was a very warm day, and she preferred resting in the garden, and, to Magdalen's surprise and pleasure, conversation with her. At first it was about Oxford matters, very interesting, but public and external to the home, and it did not draw the cords materially closer; but when Thekla had privately decided that even hanging upon the newly recovered Nag was not worth the endurance of anything so tedious, and had gone off to assist her beloved old gardener in gathering green gooseberries, Magdalen observed that she was a very pleasant little pupil, and was getting on very well, especially with arithmetic.

"That was the strong point in the junior classes," said Agatha; "better taught than it was in my time."

"I wish she could have more playfellows," said Magdalen. "She would like to go to the High School at Rockquay, but there are foundations I should wish to lay before having her out of my own hands."

"I should think you were her best playfellow. She seems very fond of you, and very happy."

"Yes," said Magdalen, rather wistfully. "I think she generally is so."

"Maidie! may I call you by the old home name?" And as Magdalen answered with a kiss and tearful smile, "Do tell me, please, if Polly and Flapsy are nice to you?"

Magdalen was taken by surprise at the pressure of the hand and the eyes that gazed into her face full of expression.

She could not keep the drops from rushing to her own eyes, though she smiled through them and said, "As nice as they know how."

"I am afraid I know what that means," said Agatha.

"If I only knew how to prevent their looking on me as their governess," continued Magdalen; "but I must have got into the groove, and I suppose I do not always remember how much must be tolerated if love has to be won; and Paula is a thoroughly good girl."

"Yes, I am sure she wishes to be," said Agatha. "Are those Sisters nice that she talks of so eagerly?"

"They are very excellent women, but somehow I should have had more confidence in them if they were not unattached, or belonged to some regular Sisterhood. I wish she had taken instead to Mysie Merrifield, who is more of my sort; but no one can control those likings."

"I don't think Gillian very attractive; she is so wrapped up in her work," confessed Agatha.

"You will see them all, I hope, for I am giving a garden party next week, perhaps. Have not they told you?"

"Oh, yes; but Polly seemed bent on its not clashing with some festival at St. Kenelm's."

"Therefore I had not fixed the day till I had heard what is settled. I have invited people for Thursday, which will hardly interfere."

"Did you know that the young man who is painting the ceiling at St. Kenelm's Church is old Mr. Delrio's son Hubert?"

"Indeed! Is he staying here? We must ask him to come up to luncheon or to tea. I am glad he is doing so well. I heard Eccles and Beamster were to do the decorations; I suppose they employ him. I should think it was a very good line to get into."

This was on a Friday; and the next day Magdalen proposed driving down in the cool of the evening to see the decorations at St. Kenelm's and their artist; but it turned out that he was gone to spend Sunday at the Cathedral city, and all that could be done was to admire the designs, and listen to Paula's enthusiastic explanation.

Magdalen consulted Agatha whether to send young Delrio a card for the garden party; but they decided that it was too late for an invitation to be sent, though a spoken one might have been possible. Besides, it was not likely to be pleasant to a stranger who knew no one but the Flights and Hendersons, and those professionally. Agatha told her sisters, and with one voice they declared that they would not see him patronised; while Agatha's acute senses doubted whether Vera's objection was not secretly based on the embarrassment of a double flirtation with him and with Wilfred Merrifield.

Indeed, Vera told her gaily: "Only think, Nag, I did have a jolly ride on the M.A.'s bike after all."

"Indeed! Then she lent it to you."

"Not she! But she and the little kid were safe gone to Avoncester, and Paula was with her dear Sisters, so Will and I took a jolly spin along the cliff road; and it was such screaming fun. Only once we thought we saw old Sir Jasper coming, and we got behind a barn, but it turned out to be only a tripper, and we had such a laugh."

"Paula does not know?"

"What would be the good of telling her, with her little nun's schoolgirl mind? She would only make no end of a fuss about a mere bit of fun and nonsense."

"I think if Wilfred Merrifield was afraid to meet his father, it showed a sense of wrong."

"Sir Jasper is a horrid old martineau, who never gives them any peace at home, but is always after them."

"A martinet, I suppose you mean. I don't think that makes it any better. I should not be happy till Magdalen knew."

"Why, no harm was done! There's her precious machine all safe! It was just for the fun of the thing, and to try how it goes. One can't be kept in like a blessed baby! She never has guessed it. That's the fun of it."

"I would not return her kindness in such an unladylike way when she is trusting you, Vera."

Did Magdalen know what had been done? She did guess, for there was a mark on the wheel that she did not remember to have known before, and it cost her a bitter pang of mistrust; but she abstained from inquiries, thinking that they might only do harm. But she bought a chain for her bicycle; and Agatha felt more shame than did Vera, who tried to believe herself amused by her tacit sense of emancipation.

Charlotte M. Yonge